New Changing Gears program connects people with cars they need for jobs that can change their lives

'It's been one of the biggest blessings'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Aug 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-01 18:10:14-04

CINCINNATI — Johnny Ballard Jr. was working in the culinary industry when he decided to pursue a career in construction instead.

The problem: To get to construction sites all over the region, Ballard needed a car. But he had been relying on the bus to get to work.

Everything changed for him when he got a job with Turner Construction Co. and a 2007 Honda Accord through Changing Gears.

“It’s been one of the biggest blessings,” Ballard said. “It gives me a bigger window and bigger opportunities so I can be able to move and prosper.”

Since 2013, Changing Gears has been helping people work their way out of poverty by selling them affordable, reliable vehicles and training them on how to budget for car-ownership and do basic maintenance.

RELATED: Program literally drives people out of poverty

But Changing Gears expects to be able to help a lot more people like Ballard through its new bridge program. The program, which launched about a month ago, is designed for people who need a car to get a job but can’t afford to buy one yet, said Joel Bokelman, Changing Gears’ founder and executive director.

For $200 per month over nine months, clients get the use of a reliable car so they can drive to work and earn the money they need to buy a vehicle from a reputable dealer, Bokelman said. It’s a lot less expensive than renting a car, he noted, and the fee includes standard maintenance.

Changing Gears

“At the end, the idea is they’re able to go and purchase their own vehicle,” he said. “Our goal at the end is that they’re able to get a loan to purchase a $10,000 car.”

The bridge program addresses a long-standing dilemma, said Johnmark Oudersluys, executive director of CityLink Center, where Changing Gears is a partner organization.

“We’ve been wrestling with this chicken and egg problem,” Oudersluys said. “You need the car to get the job. You need the job to get the car.”

Making life ‘smoother’

That was the situation for Ballard.

He was getting by with his culinary job Downtown and stressed that there “ain’t no shame” in taking the bus.

But he had to leave loads of extra time to get where he needed to go on public transit, he said, and it wasn’t possible to find bus routes that would get him to the construction sites where he needed to go.

The car from Changing Gears, he said, changed everything.

“I was able to provide and contribute to my household prior,” Ballard said. “But since I got this new job opportunity, new career opportunity, my life has become a bit more smoother.”

Changing Gears has a fleet of 10 cars available for its bridge program and currently has four clients using it.
All four, including Ballard, are graduates of CityLink’s new Cornerstone Construction Training program.

Construction is an industry where having private transportation is especially important, Oudersluys said, and the fact that so many of the program’s recent graduates needed the Changing Gears bridge program underscores that fact.

Of the 10 people who graduated from the Cornerstone program in late June, others made use of Changing Gears in other ways.

Changing Gears has a garage located in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood near CityLink Center.

One had a car that had previously been purchased through Changing Gears, Oudersluys said, and another used Changing Gears’ repair program to get a car fixed.

“Sixty percent of those clients needed Changing Gears to be able to effectively enter the construction industry,” Oudersluys said. “And four out of 10 were bridge program clients.”

CityLink’s ultimate goal is for all of its partner programs to help people work their way out of poverty.

Oudersluys said the partnership between Cornerstone Construction and Changing Gears seems to be making a difference so far.

Some of the people who went through the Cornerstone training went from being unemployed to now earning roughly $17 an hour, thanks to the cars they got through Changing Gears, Oudersluys said.

‘It came right on time’

Ballard said he earned about $15 an hour in his old job and now earns close to $20 an hour as a laborer apprentice.

The boost in income – and the car – have given him and his family more room to breathe.

“I don’t have to think about it and focus on what do I need to pay, what needs to be paid first,” Ballard said. “None of that. I just go ahead, get the checks, give them to the missus, and whatever needs to be paid is paid. No stress.”

Changing Gears wants to grow the bridge program and eventually have a fleet of 50 cars, Bokelman said.

When Changing Gears is able to raise the funds needed to do that, the program can expand to help graduates of training programs in other industries, too, Oudersluys said.

“It is amazing to be part of a collaborative where we can see a need in the community, realize and hear a need from our clients and then work together in unique ways to launch a solution,” he said.

Johnny Ballard Jr. in the Honda Accord he drives thanks to the Changing Gears bridge program.

Ballard said he couldn’t be happier with what that collaboration has meant for him.

“It’s been the biggest blessing that I got in a long time, and it came right on time,” he said. “It’s been awesome. I love. I love it. I really do.”

More information about Changing Gears is available online.

Information about CityLink Center’s Cornerstone Construction Trainingis available online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.